The U.S. Department of State — under the directive of the Obama administration — helped stabilize Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime by blocking sanctions against government leaders involved in drug trafficking and promoting a process of dialogue that ended up weakening the opposition, according to Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush.
Noriega, an outspoken critic in Washington of the Chavista regime, said in an interview that officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Treasury Department had previously tried to implement sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami for alleged involvement in drug trafficking, but the measures could only be applied after Donald Trump assumed the presidency.
“I believe there was a strategy on the part of senior career diplomats to favor stability over U.S. security, stability of the Venezuelan government over security of the United States,” said Noriega, who also served as American ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS).
The strategy, which came from the State Department, was questioned within the administration itself, particularly in its insistence to push the Venezuelan opposition to negotiate with the regime, an initiative that involved suspending its efforts to impeach Maduro and organize massive street protests against him.
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Mark Feierstein, Obama’s top security adviser on Latin America, told The Guardian newspaper that several U.S. agencies had tried months ago to apply sanctions against El Aissami on suspicion that he was one of the main forces behind drug trafficking in Venezuela.
But the sanctions were “held up last year” at the insistence of the State Department for fear that they would interfere with the dialogue efforts between the government and the opposition, Feierstein told the newspaper.
While blocking the sanctions, the State Department also argued that they could hinder diplomatic efforts to secure the release of Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen arrested by the regime under trumped-up terrorist charges.
But not everyone within the Obama administration was in agreement with that strategy, Noriega said.
“In the last few weeks, I have met with officials who were [part of Barack Obama’s team] who could not understand what the State Department was trying to do,” Noriega said.
“Some of these people within the Obama administration, who favor the sanctions, were questioning the execution of a dialogue with Maduro,” he added.
Washington’s actions also discouraged other countries and the OAS from actively coming out in defense of democracy in Venezuela, he emphasized.
To some observers, this situation brings into question the role played by Thomas Shannon, who was Washington’s special envoy to Venezuela and dominated U.S. policy toward the oil-rich country for the past two years.
Opposition sources told el Nuevo Herald that the diplomat was one of the main promoters of the dialogue and that his endorsement of the process was essential for some political leaders who had doubts about negotiating with Maduro.
“Thomas Shannon ended up promoting a dialogue that did not work,” Lilian Tintori, wife of arrested political leader Leopoldo López, said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday night.
During the interview with el Nuevo Herald, Noriega said the Obama administration appeared to have been focused on betting on Maduro’s stability to avoid the volatility that could lead to regime change in the country.
“They did not want to have a meltdown in Venezuela that later could have been interpreted as a failure of the administration. But the consequence was that they allowed the situation to deteriorate economically and politically,” Noriega said.
Venezuelans have suffered under increasing shortages of food and medicine as the economy has deteriorated.
Noriega said because the decision to apply sanctions against El Aissami was made after Trump’s inauguration but before the new president put his team into place, that indicates Obama administration officials had started the process to apply the sanctions.
“It was the career professionals, who said, ‘We are going to proceed now and challenge the State Department in its intention to block this as they have been doing for the past year,’ ” Noriega explained.
By putting the Chavista leader on its blacklist, an action that freezes El Aissami’s assets, the Treasury Department confirmed that he has played an important role in international drug trafficking.
El Aissami allegedly facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela using airplanes taking off from a Venezuelan air base, as well as controlling drug routes leaving Venezuelan ports, said the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a unit of the U.S. Department of Treasury.
The vice president, who would assume the Venezuelan presidency if Maduro left power, was also accused of protecting other drug traffickers and working with Mexican and Colombian cartels, said the OFAC announcement.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM